This essay challenges the critical commonplace that modernism's response to imperialism and metropolitan culture can be best explained in terms of irony alone by arguing that curiosity works as modernist irony's shadow dialectic. Writing during London's era of colonial exhibitions, two of modernism's best-known ironists, Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster, discovered that attending to the gaze these visual contact zones solicit—a detached scientific gaze that does not empathize with who or what one looks upon but instead encourages exhibition visitors to imagine themselves as something like amateur social scientists touring in the colonies—called not for further detachment but for new forms of productive reengagement, such as curiosity.
Attentive to the settings and visual metaphors of space and structure that abet irony's role in these texts, this essay finds that curiosity's conspicuous absence in The Secret Agent (1907) burdens irony with the obligation to respond alone to the late imperial culture Conrad characterizes as governed by fetishism. By contrast, curiosity emerges in Forster's review “The Birth of an Empire” (1924) not as irony's naive opposite but as that which may learn from the distance irony produces and as the occasion for testing tentative styles of reattachment to the metropole that seek deeper knowledge of British India and late imperial London than colonial exhibitions can display. Reading such texts today calls not for reaffirmations for ironic distance but for pursuing an alternative knowledge of curiosity's role in response by considering it within the paradigm of modernist irony.